JACKET2, July 19, 2022
Reviewed by Martin Nakell
"A Space of Poetry: An Interview with Douglas Messerli"
Martin Nakell: Your language emerges from the situation (place, person, philosophy, poetics theory) it encounters. I say “emerges from” as opposed to “put upon” because there’s a big difference. You write from within the poem as it explores its arena – rather than from outside the poem, imposing some pre-conceived idea it must follow. This leads me to several questions. The first of which: would it be fair to say we can read this work as impressionistic, impressionist poetics, that is, rather than struggling to put it together logically, absorbing it as a whole – made of melopoeia, phanopoeia, et alia, and from that impression, to let meaning accrue?
Douglas Messerli: You’re absolutely correct when you suggest that my poetry emerges from the poem and is not put upon it or placed into it as if it were a vessel waiting for my wise words.
I have never written a poem knowing what I might express or even desired to express beforehand. And all my poetry (and incidentally my fiction and even my prose) has been something constructed as I move through the space of language, with no preconceived notion of where I was going or what I might be intending to express. I understand what it means only through the process of writing and the final result.
And yes, the tools I use to construct that include sound, song, repetition, and all the devices of poetics including rhyme, alliteration, homonyms, puns, association, and sometimes just plain gibberish (although very carefully controlled), as well as maxims, old wives’ tales, false epigrams, or subconscious association. And in that sense it is fairly impressionistic. Stéphane Mallarmé the impressionist, not the symbolist, has always been one of my favorite poets. And, of course, Gertrude Stein, who uses most of these tactics is my god and goddess.
But then, I am also a Midwesterner, and plain talk is one of my constant goals, something which as a fellow-Midwesterner you might understand. And in that sense William Carlos Williams is extremely important to me. Of course my plain talk, Stein’s or even Williams’ doesn’t always sound like the plain talk that gets spoken among friends or business associates. It is the kind of plain talk that one speaks to oneself or one’s lover, a kind of coded message that appears as one is attempting to say something he or she hasn’t yet truly thought that carefully about. I would say that my poetry is an attempt, just as are my prose essays, to explain to myself what I mean or am thinking about, generally after seeing or reading a work by someone else.
So accordingly the community of poets is extremely important to me and my work. While many people, including myself, use dictionaries and thesauruses to help them along, I also use the poetry of other poets, diving into their language to steal a word or two or three, a half a line and then returning to my own next phrase before diving in once more to find the right words to move me along in my thoughts. So yes, even the writing is a process of accretion. A poem ceases only when it has accrued enough meaning for me to feel I’ve expressed what I didn’t know that I had to say, but now have begun to comprehend or have completed saying.
At poem’s end the work is filled with rather coherent meaning, and I can tell you about that, even write a prose essay to explain it. That doesn’t mean I might not explain it completely differently on another day, or that others might not see very different aspects of that expression. It can mean many things to many different people, but it doesn’t, I assure you, mean anything that anyone wants to say it does. There are definite limits to what I believe I have expressed. But then it appears that few readers can read the work as easily as I do by poem’s end.
That has something to do with the fact that I appear to have a natural ability to narrativize anything. If you gave me three poems by three different poets, I am certain I could write an essay logically linking the three works. My brain simply functions in a manner that no matter how chaotic something appears I cannot help but to make meaning of it. That is not say that the meaning of each thing is equally significant or rich or brilliant, but I can provide a logical sense of significance out of almost any written sentence or group of sentences and phrases. My brain is just hard-wired that way. When many people ask what? I say “this” or “that.” And generally can compare it to another such this or that.
Accordingly, I do try to help my readers in exploring the meaning in the poems I have created, and I rewrite several times until, without losing the wonderment of the search, I have pointed more clearly to the meanings I previously discovered. In short, I’m not trying to be difficult, obscure, or arcane just for its own sake. I am attempting to communicate. An impression is fine but I would hope the reader searches further to discover something close to the meaning I discovered in the process of writing.
And finally, I should add, if I don’t understand a poem I write by the time I’ve finished writing and reworking it, I throw it away.... READ MORE